Food & Drink

ABCs of school lunch: How to make a meal your child will eat

School is starting (in some places it already has), and parents, particularly of elementary and middle school-age kids, are staring into the black hole of lunch: how to fill 10 months’ worth of bento boxes with healthy, inspired, fun foods that won’t end up in the trash.

Many parents turn to websites like Pinterest, where you can find myriad ways to cut and shape sandwiches and fruit into the equivalent of edible storyboards to keep your children chowing down.

But what do you do if you don’t have that kind of time or talent? Get a game plan that you take to the grocery store and put into action for at least a week’s worth of lunches. Once you have one that works, set it on repeat to see you through the year.

Here are some ideas to help you with common lunch problems.

▪  “My kids want to eat the same thing every day.” This is a problem?

If it’s a healthy choice and includes a protein, a fruit and a vegetable option, then just go with the flow. It’s perfectly fine to give your kids peanut butter (if that’s allowed at your school), applesauce and carrot sticks every day.

But if you want to introduce more variety, then work on it at other mealtimes too, said Liz Kingsland, University of Kentucky Fayette County extension agent for family and consumer sciences.

Parents have to model this by eating a variety of things, too, she said. “If the parents don’t like it, the kids won’t. So you have to get out of your comfort zone a bit,” she said.

Her tip for getting a kid to try something: make it something they can use to dip with. They love dipping foods. Make a low-fat dip with either low-fat sour cream or puréed cottage cheese and Italian seasoning, and offer that with cut-up veggies. Or use low-fat yogurt as a dip for cut-up fruits.

Vanessa Oliver, a registered dietician with UK Health & Wellness, suggested testing foods with “Wacky” or “Wild Card” Wednesday. You add at least one new menu item on Wednesdays and let the kids help you decide what the next “wacky” item will be, Oliver said.

If something’s a hit, she said, work it into the regular rotation.

This can be surprisingly successful. The Lexington Farmers Market debuted a program this summer to let kids buy produce items that they pick out with $2 vouchers, introducing loads of kids to new tastes and flavors at their own initiative.

▪  “My kids don’t eat what I pack.” Perennial problem: you pack an Instagram-worthy tiffin tray of treats, and they land in the garbage or come back home with one bite out.

Here’s where you back up and get buy-in from the child, Oliver said.

“Have them make the choices for what healthy items they would like in their lunch,” she suggested. “Having control over what’s in the lunch box may help them to be satisfied with what they are eating.”

Help your children make a chart of sandwich, fruit/veggie, and sweet treat options, and let them customize their lunch, Oliver said.

And ask why foods aren’t getting eaten, she said. What don’t they like about a particular food? Texture? Taste? Presentation?

Maybe the hummus that they don’t like in a wrap they will love as a dip. Or the BLT sandwich that goes uneaten on plain bread is a winner in a pita or on a bagel.

Let them help you make out a shopping list, Oliver said.

And follow through with production.

“Take them shopping with you. Let them help you in the kitchen,” Kingsland said. “It’s amazing to me how young they want to help you in the kitchen, if you let them. Let them chop up their grapes. Let them help with dinner, and then with packing their lunch.”

That’s right: Put the kid in charge of packing the lunch. Sort out the parameters (again, a protein, a fruit and a vegetable option) and then let them decide what and how much they will eat.

In today’s school lunchrooms, kids typically have 20 minutes or less, so whatever they eat has to be easy.

If that means cutting off crusts ahead of time, then show your youngster how to do it. A kindergartener might not be up to the job, but a second-grader probably is.

If you have a picky eater, try leftovers. That way, a pre-approved dinner gets recycled for a second meal. Sometimes that won’t work, if your picky eater also disdains leftovers. In that case, try designating some of the meal for lunch in advance: maybe some pasta for tonight’s macaroni and cheese can be saved plain for a lunch meal with a different sauce.

Opening that lunch box and picking out what to eat “is one of the first times your child gets to make decisions on their own,” Kingsland said. So give them a range of reasonably healthy choices and they can’t go wrong, even if not every bite gets eaten.

▪  “My kids only like junk foods.” The fix for this one is not to give them junk food in the first place. But sometimes that backfires, too, and the kids who never get sugary snacks go crazy when they finally get the chance. They want chocolate milk and cookies and powdered doughnuts.

Here again is where you have to get buy-in from the child. Let him or her pick out what goes in, but limit the selection to the healthiest options you can manage.

If your kid loves Lunchables, offer healthy whole-grain crackers, low-fat cheese for slices and healthier lunchmeat options. And let them pick out one treat, but keep it as healthful as you can.

Cookies or even chips can be OK if they are balanced out by the rest of the lunch, Kingsland said.

If your kid won’t eat fruit, try a smoothie. A homemade yogurt smoothie with frozen fruit could be a terrific treat option.

Avoid buying big bags of chips or even the small “snack-size” bags in bulk. Instead, once your child has negotiated a healthier option such a popcorn or whole grain Goldfish, package it in reusable containers that can be added to any lunch the night before. That way you limit the quantity of salty snacks.

Try to set up a system that you and your kids can work with, an assembly line of items that can be prepared in advance and packed the night before, preferably by the child.

Janet Patton: 859-231-3264, @janetpattonhl.

Need more concrete ideas?

▪  University of Kentucky Chandler Dining Hall chefs Pete Combs and Justin Clark will demonstrate recipes for healthy, tasty foods, including quick breakfasts, easy dinners, creative lunchbox items and snacks at 4 p.m. Aug 17. The class and samples are free each third Thursday of the month in the Chandler cafeteria.

▪  Take a look at, by food blogger Lisa Leake, who has a section on kids’ lunches including vegetarian, gluten-free and nut-free options. Most are simple and require minimal prep.

▪, from Kentucky-born food writer Catherine McCord, also has a section of lunch ideas that you can use to spark ideas.